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Rest Easy, Mr. Tenet: You Weren't the First Spy Master to Be Duped

June 06, 2004|Andrew Cockburn

Whatever embarrassing memories CIA Director George J. Tenet will be taking home with him, allowing Colin Powell to use wholly fraudulent Ahmad Chalabi-derived information in addressing the United Nations must be one of them.

But perhaps, on second thought, Tenet shouldn't feel so bad: He's not the first to fall for such a thing. Even his tweedy predecessors at the OSS fell for false intelligence in their day.

Consider the brief but stellar career of one wartime OSS intelligence source, whose material was considered so valuable that access to his reports had to be authorized by the president or the secretary of State.

The source, eventually code-named Vessel, contacted the OSS station in Rome in the fall of 1944 when the city was under Allied occupation. What he had to offer was priceless: diplomatic documents and cable traffic from the highest levels of the secretive Vatican bureaucracy. Most enticingly, Vessel was even able to supply copies of the reports of the papal nuncio in Tokyo -- a window into the heart of the Japanese empire. When he started supplying verbatim transcripts of the pope's conversations on Japanese peace feelers, the reports began going straight to the desk of President Roosevelt.

Even legendary spymaster James Jesus Angleton, then running OSS counterintelligence in Rome, though suspicious of the prolific output of Vessel -- who had broadened his production to include military information -- did nothing to stop it. Vessel was by then being paid $500 a month, a small fortune in wartime Rome.

In February 1945, however, an OSS official in Italy reported to headquarters that it seemed their prized source was hawking his wares to a variety of customers. The official suggested that the White House and State Department be warned that all was not as it seemed. But Vessel's reports were proving far too important to the Oval Office to be discarded just because there might be a little problem with their authenticity.

When a new report from Vessel arrived on the heels of the warning, OSS chief William Donovan had no hesitation in sending it straight on to FDR, describing its contents as "startling."

It was indeed startling: The report included an account of a conversation between the Japanese envoy to the Holy See and his American counterpart, Myron Taylor. Unfortunately for Donovan and his organization, this was eminently checkable. The State Department, no friend of the OSS, asked Taylor whether he had had such a conversation, and the emissary answered that he had not, thus confirming that the Vessel reports were fiction. Donovan had to fess up to his customers that they had been duped, though he intimated that the OSS had uncovered the fraud unassisted.

As related by historian Anthony Cave-Brown, subsequent investigation revealed that Vessel was in fact a corpulent freelance writer named Virgilio Scattolini, whose previous claim to fame had been the authorship of a pornographic novel, "Amazons of the Bidet," a runaway bestseller.

Scattolini had turned to the manufacture of news and intelligence after working at the Vatican newspaper (where he had acquired useful insights into papal procedures). The moral of the Scattolini affair, as with the more recent farce of Chalabi's "intelligence," is that the more the information fits the customer's preconceived ideas, the less likely anyone should be to question its provenance. All too often in such cases, there is an Amazon lurking somewhere in the bidet.

Andrew Cockburn is the co-author of "Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein" (HarperPerennial, 2000).

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